Former East Germany guardhouse houses art

A German artist turns a surveillance booth into a medium of artistic expression.

News Desk July 28, 2014

At the behest of the iron-fisted communist regime in former East Germany (GDR), guardhouses were made an integral part of state surveillance, stationed not only at borders but in places where they could monitor ordinary people going about their daily lives. As the year marks 25 years since the reunification of Germany, a German artist turns one such tiny surveillance booth into an art exhibit and venue, reported Reuters.

The booth, which will be installed in a museum near Los Angeles dedicated to the Cold War, is a one-person guardhouse measuring two metres by one metre. It was originally located in the parking lot of state-run news agency ADN, so that authorities could keep a watchful eye on reporters. Artist Christof Zwiener rescued it from demolition.

“The guards controlled the people coming in or out, but on the other hand, the people going in also watched them,” said Zwiener. “There are a lot of forgotten things in East Berlin, but nobody cares about them anymore.”

Ten artists have showcased their work in the closet-sized booth, many focusing on surveillance which is a sensitive issue in Germany because of the way the repressive security agencies Gestapo and Stasi spied on citizens in the Nazi and communist eras. The exhibit by Berlin-based artist Sonya Schoenberger, which ends this month, comprises thousands of keys once used in Stasi police barracks, hanging from a vertical metal rod.

Berlin tourist attractions on the GDR theme include Checkpoint Charlie, and the Stasi Museum and DDR Museum, both of which focus on the Stasi’s sinister surveillance apparatus. The project has coincided with revelations that the United States National Security Agency spied on citizens and institutions in Germany, including Chancellor Angela Merkel’s mobile phone.

“Berlin is, of course, a vivid place for this. Memories that are found in public spaces carry a lot of weight for people,” said Schoenberger, adding Zwiener had found a way to make such meaningful, shared memories “visible again.”

The booth will travel 6,000 miles by ship to go on show from September 26 in four locations around Los Angeles including the corner of a busy intersection. It will then be shifted to its permanent home at the Wende Museum for the silver jubilee of German reunification in November.

“The guardhouse is about parking lots and media and LA is about two things: parking lots and media,” said Justinian Jampol, founder of the museum dedicated to the ‘Wende’ — German for the end of the Cold War after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989. The museum in Culver City houses Cold War artifacts from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union and will move to a new location, in a former armoury, on November 8.

Compiled by Ayesha Shaikh 

Published in The Express Tribune, July 29th, 2014.

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